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More Must Be Done to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse on Social Media Platforms

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Ishani Sathi


A man described as "one of the most prolific child sexual abuse offenders ever investigated" has admitted over 90 offences involving victims as young as four.[1] David Wilson pleaded guilty to 96 counts of abuse, after creating fake identities of teenage girls on social media platforms, such as Facebook, to solicit boys and encourage them to send explicit images.[2] Wilson would build trust with his victims before then engaging in further malicious behaviour, by blackmailing them into sending more extreme footage, sometimes going as far as to act on his threats and sharing the images with the victim’s friends.[3] This chilling and inhuman behaviour has had severe effects on his victims, with some expressing a desire to end their lives.[4] The reality is, Wilson is one example of thousands of adult sexual offenders who utilise the internet to conceal their identities and use believable online personas to exploit children. There have been reports of a concerning increase in child sexual abuse during lockdown,[5] as more young people spend time online and thus creating more opportunities for deranged adults such as Wilson to target vulnerable individuals. It is clear more needs to be done to protect the most vulnerable in society from such damaging abuse, beginning with a commitment by the government to stricter protective measures.


Wilson is an extreme example of a paedophile who, after years of investigation and lengthy legal processes, was able to be brought to justice, allowing victims some closure and the prevention of more vulnerable young people from being exploited. However, the abuse he inflicted is damaging and irreversible, and the delay in prosecution caused more children and their families to have their lives devastated. It is concerning to know Wilson was able to escape detection through simple hacks, such as using unregistered mobile phones,[6] despite the severity of his actions and the number of victims he targeted. It is even more worrying when one considers the number of abusers who are currently engaging in the same behaviour and are going undetected, and how many young people’s lives are being devasted consequently. Sajid Javid, the former chancellor, warned that isolation was creating a “perfect storm” for child sexual abuse, with children spending more time online, putting them at greater risk of being targeted by strangers through social media, apps and gaming.[7] Indeed, this warning should be taken seriously, given there has been a spike in the number of reports of online abuse of young people during lockdown, with a hotline for reporting suspected child abuse material online having a record month in September, with calls increasing 45%.[8] The NSPCC has also published highly concerning figures, stating that over 10,000 sexual offences were recorded in the UK in the past year which involved an online element, including grooming, sexual assault and rape, an increase by 16% on the previous year.[9] Andy Burrows, NSPCCC Head of Child Safety Online Policy, stated that "these figures suggest that online abuse was already rising before lockdown, and the risks to children appear to have spiked significantly since.”.[10] Burrows went on to urge the government to rethink their original proposals for social media regulation that was published over a year ago to thwart preventable online abuse to children.[11] He implored the Prime Minister to ‘prioritise introducing a truly comprehensive Online Harms Bill this Autumn and pass legislation by the end of 2021 that sees tech firms held criminally and financially accountable if they continue to put children at risk.’[12]


It is highly concerning to think, despite the severity of the consequences of offenders exploiting children online, social media platforms are not committing to additional and immediate security measures to ensure that such behaviour can be detected easily during the lockdown or that the government is acting on these appalling figures with urgency. In fact, the National Crime Agency pointed out that the plans by Facebook to introduce end-to-end encryption on Messenger could result in offenders such as Wilson going undiscovered.[13] Indeed, Rob Jones, NCA Director of Threat Leadership stated that “it’s chilling to think Wilson wouldn’t have been caught if Facebook had already implemented their end-to-end encryption plans which will entirely prevent access to message content.”.[14] Similarly, the NSPCC has stated that Instagram has become the leading platform for child grooming in the UK, with a 200% rise in recorded instances in the use of the platform to target and abuse children in the past year.[15] With such statistics and the clear knowledge that this abuse is occurring on popular social media platforms, it is more crucial than ever that stricter and harsher guidelines are published to prevent the abuse from happening in the first place and to spare young people a lifetime of trauma. Indeed, we cannot prevent young people from using social media: it is part of society’s fabric and an important means of communication in lockdown and an essential resource for young people to be able to stay connected with their friends and family in a time where it is impossible to physically see them. Indeed, young people should not have to sacrifice their freedoms and enjoyment, particularly because the harmful abuse could be prevented by social media platforms committing to strict abuse prevention polices and the government pledging to enforce robust mechanisms and processes to prevent and identify sexual exploitation and abuse.


One way to tackle this abuse is by encouraging people to report abuse where they see it. IWF’s hotline direction has argued that because more people are spending time online, it may allow for increased reporting and spotting of criminal content.[16] By society committing to be vigilant while on social media platforms, offenders may be discouraged to engage in abusive behaviour in fear of getting reported. However, this is not effective enough: many predators, such as Wilson, work in highly tactical and covert manners and thus the reporting of such behaviour can only be done by the victims themselves in such instances, many of whom are reluctant to do so in fear of any consequences that may result, such as the act of any blackmail threats, or they may not even know that they are being exploited in the first place. Even so, it is unfair and unreasonable to place the burden of preventing abuse on the victims. Thus, more must be done at the legislative level, given social media companies such as Facebook and Instagram are not committing to any meaningful measures despite the concerning figures of abuse occurring on their platforms. Margot James MP, stated that "online safety is a top priority for the Government” and that they will “soon be publishing an Online Harms White Paper which will set out clear expectations for companies to help keep their users, particularly children, safe online."[17] She added that the White Paper "will set out new legislative measures to ensure that the platforms remove illegal content and prioritize the protection of users, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults."[18]


While the commitment to legislative measures to protect children from online abuse is welcome, it is simply unsatisfactory that the issue is not being treated with the urgency it deserves. The shocking statistics of abuse being reported during lockdown means thousands of children have fallen victim to abuse that could have been prevented and the long-term effects this can have on their mental health can be devastating. Indeed, Wilson’s victims were as young as four years old – the trauma that the victims’ and their family will be experiencing is irreversible. And it is distressing to think of how many more four-year-olds and vulnerable children are being exploited right now. We must be vigilant in preventing abuse and calling out abusers. However, more pressure must be applied to social media companies to protect young people, beginning with robust and harsh preventative measures from the government.



 

[1] Adele Robinson, ‘Man, 36, admits to 96 charges of child sex abuse’ (Sky News, 23 Nov 2020) < https://news.sky.com/story/man-36-admits-to-96-charge-of-child-sex-abuse-12140218> [2] Ibid [3] ‘Man who approached more than 5,000 children globally in child sexual abuse case pleads guilty’ (National Crime Agency, 23 Nov 2020) < https://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/news/man-admits-96-online-sexual-offences-against-51-young-boys> [4] Robinson (n1) [5] Jamie Grierson, ‘Calls to online child abuse sexual abuse watchdog up 45% in September’ (the Guardian, 30 Oct 2020) <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/oct/30/calls-to-online-child-sexual-abuse-watchdog-up-45-in-september> [6] National Crime Agency (n3) [7] Jess Staufenberg, ‘Sharp increase in UK child sexual abuse during pandemic’ (the Guardian, 9 July 2020) < https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jul/08/sharp-increase-in-uk-child-sexual-abuse-during-pandemic> [8] Grierson (5) [9] ‘Police record over 10,000 online child sex crimes in a year for the first time’ (NSPCC, 3 Sep 2020) < https://www.nspcc.org.uk/about-us/news-opinion/2020/2020-09-03-cybercrimes-during-lockdown/> [10] Ibid [11] Ibid [12] Zak Doffman, ‘Instagram The Worst as Social Media Slammed As ‘A Gateway For Child Abuse’ (Forbes, 1 March 2019) < https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2019/03/01/surge-of-200-in-use-of-instagram-to-target-and-abuse-children/?sh=324d9fb559c4> [13] Robinson (n1) [14] Ibid [15] Doffman (n12) [16] Grierson (n5) [17] Doffman (n12) [18] Ibid

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